The history and pageantry surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president and the first black to hold the nation’s highest office was not lost on students watching live coverage of the festivities at Catalyst Circle Rock Elementary School Tuesday.
More than 200 students sat in the school’s gymnasium enraptured, heads tilted upwards as streaming video of the inauguration flickered on a large screen hung from the gym’s rafters. As the first images of Obama flashed across the screen walking along side outgoing President George W. Bush, students erupted into loud cheers. Even images of First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters, Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10, garnered thunderous applause and cheers.
The Austin school was among dozens of Chicago Public Schools holding assemblies or viewing parties so students could be a part of this history-making day, even though the actual event took place hundreds of miles away in Washington D.C..
A technical hiccup nearly spoiled the day for Circle Rock students. The school temporarily lost its internet feed forcing students to miss Obama taking the oath of office on the same bible Abraham Lincoln used at his first inauguration in 1861. Obama was well into his inaugural address when the feed was back up and running a few minutes later. That, however, did not diminish students’ reverie.
Amari Smith, 12, was speechless over Obama’s presidency. “There is nothing that you can say about that,” the seventh grader said. “It’s like, ‘wow,’ a black president.”
However, she found inspiration in Obama. “To me it means, I could do anything that I want to do,” said Smith, who aspires to be a lawyer. “Now that chance has increased.”
Christopher O’Neil, also a seventh-grader, was a little disappointed he missed Obama getting sworn-in, but was buoyed by his words.
“We still got part of his speech on the radio,” O’Neil said, noting that Obama’s election as president has shattered myths about black men.
“The statistics of our community say that all black men are gangsters, that we are going to jail and that we are not going to make nothing of ourselves,” the 12-year-old O’Neil explained. “Now that we got a black president, people know that they can be whatever they want to be.”
Watching old biopics on Dr. King’s life put this day in perspective for 14-year-old Rochelle Smith. Smith said she didn’t truly understand her parents’ wish to see the day the nation would be led by an African-American until she saw how blacks were treated during the early days of civil rights movement.
“I didn’t understand before how much it meant for the African-American people … but then when I thought about how they used to beat us and stuff, I realize this means a lot,” the eighth-grader said. “This is a very emotional time.”
Principal Sala Sims wanted Obama’s inauguration also to serve as a civics lesson. Students in grades three through eight wrote essays or letters to the president centered on his campaign platforms. Students also took an oath to be a catalyst for change in their school, community and homes. Sims said she wanted to create an experience where students were part of the event, just not viewing it.
“I just thought that would be an awesome way to commemorate the event,” Sims said, noting that students created posters using Obama’s campaign slogan of “Yes We Can.”
The students’ works evoked pride and hope. They also used imagery of slavery, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement to describe how far this nation has come. Some letters touched on weightier issues such as merit pay for teachers, better-funded schools and violence prevention. Students said the effort was to ensure Obama keeps his campaign promises.
Fourth-grader Jaelin Johnson’s letter echoed a familiar theme Obama spoke about in his inaugural address – the economy. While Obama themed his campaign around the word change, for Johnson, change starts with fixing the economy.
“Change means to me that we will have a better economy where people can buy food that they need and fill up their cars,” the 9-year-old said, noting that Obama could start by “lowering prices and making gas cheaper.”
In her letter to the president, fifth-grader Erica Wade, 10, described how Obama represents the promise and opportunity blacks didn’t have during the Jim Crow era.
“He gave us so many open ideas where we can have better chances to become what we want to become, and for the kids who don’t see that, I hope that they really see that today,” Wade said.